Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Tolkien needs defending: A classic Camp 3-er at work

Is The Lord of the Rings any good? I just came across this provocatively-titled article by Martin Turner, and felt compelled to comment, as it dovetails with the two-part article I’m currently writing about whether The Lord of the Rings qualifies as literature.

Harkening back to Part I of my article, it’s apparent that Turner falls squarely into Camp 3, with a dash of Camp 1. He seems to like Tolkien quite a bit and his article begins with some compelling reasons why The Lord of the Rings deserves a place among the very great works of this or any age. But as it progresses Turner hedges his bets, and seems to conclude that LOTR, while a terrific read, isn’t literature, or at best is a deeply flawed example.

Turner starts out strong. He pleads the case that critics should treat imaginative literature just like realistic novels. He takes some stuffing out of the literary elite and the notion that literature must meet certain, pre-defined criteria:

Like Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, which appears to account for a large number of the visits to this website, this critical perspective grows from the supremely arrogant position that there is just one true purpose of literature, and this, despite the evidence of preceding centuries, has been discovered by the critic and his cadre.

This is a great point, and quite correct. Literature has many functions and purposes. But from here on out, the article quickly goes downhill in its evaluation of Tolkien.

First, Martin (half-heartedly) criticizes Tolkien for not meeting with his own particular definition of literature:

I promised to deal with the first group of criticisms second. These are to do with the technical literary merits of the books. At this point we must recognise that, as a novel, the Lord of the Rings has substantial flaws … Essentially a novel is not so much an adventure story as a story about how character grows and changes as it responds to events and the world around it. Robinson Crusoe is not a foundational novel because of the desert island, but because of the exploration of Crusoe’s character and how it changes. War and Peace is not a great novel because of its sweep of history, which is merely the backdrop, but because of its profound analysis of the character of Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Bolkonsky. We need to recognise that there is no real character development in the Lord of the Rings.

So immediately after telling us that it’s “supremely arrogant” to posit that there is just one true purpose of literature, Turner says that all the great novels are great because of their character development. And with its lack of character development, The Lord of the Rings is therefore substantially flawed.

I won’t argue that LOTR has a deep, sweeping character arc to any of its characters; it does not (though Gollum/Smeagol arguably does, and Frodo is certainly substantially changed from his journey). But I’d also argue that its entire cast and crew of characters adds up to the sum of the human condition. Aragorn is nobility of the spirit, Sam is loyalty, Frodo dogged determination, Gollum lust, Denethor despair, Boromir pride, etc. Taken together as a whole, this panoply of characters depicts us, and offers a profound picture of what it means to be human.

And deep characterization is not the only function of literature. It’s a function, no more or less. Martin doesn’t seem convinced by his argument, either:

This, of course, is only a flaw if we assume that the Lord of the Rings is supposed to be a novel. It almost certainly is not, at least, not in the sense of the evolution of the novel as but forward by Leavis and others. Tolkien described it as a ‘tale’. In medieval terms we would describe it as a Romance.

So is The Lord of the Rings’ lack of characterization a flaw, or not? It's quite unclear. Either way, the argument is full of holes and equivocation and is entirely unconvincing.

Next he goes on to criticize the structure of LOTR:

The structure unravels rapidly in The Two Towers, though. The first part, the adventures of the majority of the company in Rohan, is compelling and magical adventure fiction. In its own terms, it is as good as or better than anything in the Fellowship of the Ring. However, as we read, we are aware that this is merely a side-show. The main story, the overriding need to destroy the ring, is taking place at the same time but elsewhere. This is the subject of the second part of the Two Towers. However, this part is unremittingly bitter, grim and unpleasant. It has none of the bright adventure of books I-III, and even its moral dilemma is painful and uncomfortable. It could be argued that this is essential to the overall conception of the cycle, but the choice to write book IV at the same length as book III simply does not work as fiction. Under close questioning, most re-readers admit that they tend to ‘hurry through’ (ie, skip-read) book IV, in order to get on to the Return of the King as quickly as possible.…Nonetheless, in terms of the conscious structural strait-jacket thrust on it, the Lord of the Rings must be regarded as flawed.

This is … just wrong. The structure of LOTR works just fine. When the gates slam shut on Sam with a clang at the end of book IV, we don’t know what happened to Frodo (it’s hard to imagine what readers must have felt back in 1954 when The Two Towers was first published). Though much maligned by Martin, this obviously creates tension in the reader. On top of which, Martin uses anecdotal evidence to support his claim. His statement that Most re-readers admit that they tend to ‘hurry through’ (ie, skip-read) book IV, in order to get on to the Return of the King as quickly as possible is obviously flimsy, to say the least. I don’t ‘hurry through’ book IV, and have never heard anyone admit to doing the same, so I guess my unsubstantiated counter-argument is just as valid.

Also, and at the risk of nit-picking, the action in Rohan is most definitely not a “side-show.” The Lord of the Rings is about war and quest. The actions of the small hobbits are critical, but so are the ramifications of the larger conflict. If Rohan didn’t come to the aid of Minas Tirith, and if Minas Tirith failed to hold, than the destruction of the One Ring is a moot point. What would it accomplish, if all the peoples of the free worlds were already annihilated by Sauron’s hordes? Secondly, one of the book’s central tenets is that different cultures and peoples must set aside their differences and work together to confront evil. This is demonstrated in Book III with Rohan and Gondor, two former allies grown cold with suspicion and grievances large and small. Finally, as a plot-point it’s critical that Sauron’s forces are defeated at the Pelennor Fields so that a later sally may be made to the Black Gate, a feint that allows Sam and Frodo to pass through the otherwise orc infested plains of Gorgoroth to Mount Doom. Sauron’s attention must be drawn elsewhere and his forces vacated from the interior. This couldn’t happen without Helm’s Deep and the critical events begun in Book III. So Turner is wrong on several levels, thematic and plot-wise.

As far as the length of book IV being an issue, or its “unremittingly bitter, grim and unpleasant” nature; again, there’s nothing to substantiate his argument. It’s supposed to get more bitter, and grim, as our heroes press into the heart of Mordor.

Finally, Turner offers an entirely unconvincing argument that the plot of The Lord of the Rings is flawed. In so doing he completely misreads the Scouring of the Shire, which is one of the most important (some would say the central lesson—I don’t know if I’d go that far) of the novel. Martin complains that the Scouring of the Shire is not as “adventurous” compared to what came before and so seems anticlimactic. That’s the point, of course. The long arm of war reaches all the way back into our own farms and fields homes. The enemy is us, if we let our guard down and engage in closed-minded parochialism. This point would have been lost with Balrogs and wizards running around the Shire, as Turner seems to want.

Turner doesn’t like the last line of the book and calls it “trite and unsatisfying”; others like Tom Shippey and Peter Beagle in Meditations on Middle-earth argue with far more conviction that “Well, I’m back” is brilliant, laden with multiple levels of meaning. Turner says there’s no end to The Lord of the Rings, to which I counter, Huh? When Frodo sails into the west on full ship and magic leaves the world, ushering in an entirely new age, that’s not end enough? When the Hobbits finally grow up and become men, and are able to save the Shire without the help of the Maiar Gandalf, this isn’t a satisfying end for him? He implies that there should be some big death at the end to wrap it all up, like all the real sagas:

There is a reason why most sagas end with the death of the hero, or, as in Brennu Njallssaga, with the consequences of his death: it is a logical and satisfying place to stop.

This criticism is an utter head-scratcher: Frodo is dying, he has for all intents and purposes gone off to die. Sam has gone back and now must cope with the consequences of losing his best friend and master. Did Turner somehow miss this? And for that matter, in what way is Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past,” in which Tolkien deftly sums up the history of the One Ring and what is at stake with its destruction—laying out both the inherent danger of the Ring and the broad strokes of the quest—not a “real beginning?” This is incredibly silly.

He concludes with a final patronizing jab:

Tolkien fans may consider this to be heresy, but it seems to me there is little point in defending the Lord of the Rings by denying the self-evident flaws.

Self-evident to whom? To Turner, yes. To readers with more familiarity with the novel—not so much.

I will say that the article ends with a far more interesting observation:

On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings is not a novel, in the technical sense, at all. It is a tale, a romance, a cycle, a work of major creation, perhaps something unique. It is the inspiration for a generation of video games, a cultural phenomenon, the beginning, and perhaps the end, of a literary genre.

I completely agree: The Lord of the Rings is not a traditional novel. It’s very difficult to classify, perhaps because it is (despite its many imitations) a one of a kind work. But that is a completely different argument than whether succeeds or fails as literature.


anarchist said...

"It's all down to personal taste really."

There. Now you've heard the only bit of literary criticism worth hearing :)

Falze said...

I'm rather struck by how easily this superficial 'analysis' could be applied to another work that is fresh in my mind due to recent reading - 'The Brothers Karamazov'. Analyzed the same way, it is clear that this guy would emphatically declare that TBK might be an OK story, but is no novel, let alone great literature.

Character development read to mean the characters change during the story? There is essentially none. Despite the world's best efforts, none of the brothers really change from the first instant we meet them, particularly Alyosha who undergoes the biggest change in circumstances, but remains the same person he was before before being thrust out into the world. Well, OK, Smerdyakov kills himself, I guess that's a change, he's dead, although within character.

An "unsatisfying" ending? The trial ends in chaos and Dmitri flees, sailing across the seas to who-knows-what fate while the others simply remain..."home".

And, of course, many readers are bound to skip quickly through the bits about the sick boy, the dog, the pining young girl, to get to the murder mystery and trial.

This foolish and naive 'analysis' that sounds more like a grad student trying to impress self-important professors that believe they have all the 'correct' answers as to what literature is (and is not) by spewing back their own biases and preconceptions at them for a good grade could easily be written about bookcases of celebrated classic works, again TBK is simply fresh in my mind.

Really though, reading that Frodo goes through no changes apart from becoming famous is enough to realize that the man cannot be taken seriously. Did he even read the books?

PS: A few balrogs would have livened up TBK considerably.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Anarchist is so right, though of course what he is referring to is "quality" criticism rather than scholarship (which of course doesn't reach people in the way that "book reviews" do).

All of Martin's criticisms, especially those of character and structure, could be applied to 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, considering by one and all to be one of the great works of world literature.

Brian Murphy said...

There. Now you've heard the only bit of literary criticism worth hearing :)

You're probably right.

I'm rather struck by how easily this superficial 'analysis' could be applied to another work that is fresh in my mind due to recent reading - 'The Brothers Karamazov'.

I haven't read TBK in close to two decades, but I agree.

I just can't believe the gall of the article: It begins with a big middle finger aimed squarely at the literati for being overly rigid and proscriptive about the definition of literature, then it proceeds to tell us what literature really is, and why LOTR doesn't qualify. Sigh.

All of Martin's criticisms, especially those of character and structure, could be applied to 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, considering by one and all to be one of the great works of world literature.

I've gotta get around to reading that.

Taranaich said...

Mother of God, first we have the argument that Lord of the Rings isn't "literature," now claiming it isn't a novel either? Am I the only one who finds such hair-splitting utterly preposterous, or am I mistaken in thinking that the definition of a novel is to do with word length as opposed to subject matter?